In a normal Formula One season, a racer who came back from a substantial points deficit to score his third consecutive world championship would easily be proclaimed the driver of the year. Unfortunately for Sebastian Vettel, 2012 was anything but ordinary and despite his remarkable accomplishment, the debate over who is the season's best driver could go on indefinitely.
A quick look shows the Red Bull driver performed masterfully in the clutch, winning four of the last seven races to erase Fernando Alonso's 39-point lead down the stretch and win the title. Drivers get 25 points for a win.
In addition, his triumph made him the first driver to win his first F1 three titles consecutively and the sport's youngest ever three-time champion.
There's little doubt that Vettel has the right stuff, but many feel that Ferrari's Alonso deserves the crown of best driver in F1 this year. The two-time world champion challenged Vettel to the final lap of the final race before losing the title by a mere three points in a battle that should have never even been close.
While it's true that Vettel and Red Bull did struggle to get up to pace early, Alonso's Ferrari was dismal in the early going. His miraculous performance to win in the wet in the season's second race in Malaysia was a thing of beauty. Simply put, the Ferrari that arrived at the season opener in Australia 1.5 seconds slower in qualifying than the pole time for the race should never have reached such heights.
As the season wore on, the main story was how Alonso continued to lead the table points driving a car that did not have the pace to challenge the front runners. Qualifying showed the Ferrari's lack of outright speed with Alonso managing just three starts from a top-3 spot on the grid, and yet he converted that handicap into an incredible 13 podiums in 2012.
In all, Alonso finished 56 places better than he started over the 20-race season in a car that was never the best on the grid. He averaged a starting spot of just more than sixth.
In comparison, Vettel's 10 starts in the top-3 translated into an equal number of podiums. Although Vettel gained 49 spots overall, he netted 21 of them in one afternoon in Abu Dhabi where a penalty saw him start last after he had put up the third best time in qualifying. Including the 21-place penalty in Abu Dhabi, Vettel's average starting position was fifth. Without it, he averaged about fourth.
While there's a strong case for both Alonso and Vettel as the season's top driver, Lotus' Kimi Räikkönen also deserves consideration. He impressed just about everyone by hardly losing a step after two years away from F1.
Räikkönen walked away from the sport following the 2009 season to go rally racing and returned this year with the Lotus team. The 2007 world champion showed his massive talent time and time again in 2012, shaking off the rust quickly and finding pace almost immediately.
While he struggled in qualifying early in 2012, Räikkönen started in the top-5 eight times out of 20 races. He missed the top-10 just four times and only once in the second half of the season. Räikkönen was also consistent, scoring points in every race but one and finishing every lap of the season except for the final one of the year in Brazil.
In all, he took one win in Abu Dhabi and seven podiums to finish third overall in his comeback year. The Lotus driver's performance had him ahead of McLaren's world champion duo of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, who were driving what was easily a quicker car, if not the fastest on average for the season.
To put his accomplishment in perspective, it took Räikkönen only four races to return to the podium while seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher needed 46 starts and went almost three seasons into his comeback to do the same. Räikkönen won in his 18th start back in F1, something Schumacher never came close to doing in his three-year return with Mercedes after retiring in 2006. Granted, at 33, Räikkönen is 10 years younger than the Mercedes driver, but he also doesn't hold just about every record that matters in F1, including most titles (7), most wins (91), most poles (68), and most podiums (155).
Overshadowed by the headline-grabbing battle at the front between Alonso and Vettel and the impressive return of Räikkönen was sophomore driver Sergio Pérez, who came one agonizing mistake away from being the first-ever winner behind the wheel of a Sauber in the changing conditions of the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Incredibly, Pérez put on a passing clinic this year, improving 82 places from his grid spot over the 20-race season. Although his Sauber usually didn't qualify well, its race pace was quite good, especially on used tires. He rode this strategy to the podium three times, including a stellar drive from 15th on the grid at Montreal's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve to third by the end of the action.
On the other hand, his inexperience also showed at times, particularly in Japan where he tried an overly optimistic passing move on Hamilton and ended up beached in a gravel trap in a race where his teammate finished on the podium. Pérez will replace Hamilton in 2013, when the 2008 world champion moves to Mercedes.
The last driver to receive honourable mention must be Force India's Nico Hülkenberg, who got stronger as the season progressed and emerged as his team's leader by the end of the year. A reserve driver with Force India in 2011, Hülkenberg took over a race seat this year. In 2010, he raced for Williams.
His season highlight came at the finale in Brazil where he led 30 laps in changing conditions and looked destined to score his first career podium.
Unfortunately, he made a clumsy overtake attempt on Hamilton while fighting over second place late in the race, which knocked the McLaren out of the action and delivered a penalty that robbed him of a top-3 finish.
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